When apartheid ended, the new regime in South Africa promised to redistribute land that whites had stolen from blacks. Yet nearly two decades later, it has largely failed to do so — and the patience of the dispossessed is running out.
Despite remarkable progress since the end of apartheid, South Africa today is badly wracked by AIDS and severe wealth inequalities, with a leadership still fixated on racial struggle. After more than a decade in power, the ANC has yet to reconcile its various ambitions: curbing racism, promoting political participation, and advancing the interests of all South Africans.
On June 28, 2008, when Thapelo heard that his son had been stabbed, he rushed home from his job at the local airport in Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It was a still, warm winter evening. When he got to his home in the township of Motherwell, his wife was already at the hospital and the house was locked. In his haste to leave work, Thapelo (who asked that his name be changed for his protection) had forgotten his phone, so he climbed through an unlocked first-story window to retrieve his daughter’s. He was calling his wife from their yard when a police car passed. The officers stopped to question him, and in his desperation to find out if his son was alive, he made the mistake of ignoring them.
Thapelo woke around midnight, his body aching and covered with bruises and cuts. He was in the back of a police truck at the Motherwell police station, soaking wet, bloody, and covered in mud. “My clothes were soaked up, my jacket was soaked up, I had scars all over my body,” he said. “There was no reason; I’m not a criminal.” Later, he would be charged with malicious damage to police property, which he denies vehemently: he was in his own yard when he was arrested and tortured by the police.
That night, Thapelo experienced firsthand the shoddy, often brutal state of the South African criminal justice system. The abuse was all the more galling given his family’s history. During the popular resistance to apartheid, his mother worked as a courier for the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). She disappeared when Thapelo was a child; he didn’t see her again for 28 years. Before she died, she told him about her abuse by the apartheid government, lifting her top to show him the scar where police had cut off her right breast. When the same ANC that his mother and so many other South Africans had sacrificed to fight for finally came to power in 1994, such abuses were supposed to stop. As Thapelo well knows, they did not.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
Torture is rampant in South Africa today, although the victims are different than they were under apartheid. The apartheid government was notorious for its widespread abuse of political prisoners. Now the victims are often low-level criminals, mostly in poor townships, suspected of petty theft or drug dealing. Much of the evidence is anecdotal. There are no statistics because, until last month, torture carried out by the government was not a crime in South Africa. Any accusations fell under other categories; torture was often recorded as police brutality or assault, or not recorded at all, and so any existing statistics are not comprehensive. As the Guardian recently reported from a crime conference in Johannesburg, over the past decade recorded cases of police brutality rose by 313 percent, from 416 cases in 2001-2002 to 1,722 in 2011-2012 — though they are all tellingly not classified as torture.
That doesn’t mean torture doesn’t exist, though. Amanda Dissel, the South African delegate to a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization called the Association for the Prevention of Torture, and other anti-torture activists and lawyers point to case after case of systemic torture at the hands of police and government security forces in recent years. They all tell stories. There is the man, thought to have witnessed the murder of a police officer, who was tortured so the police could wring information out of him, regardless of his involvement. There is the child, accused of petty theft, who was beaten until he confessed to a crime he may not have committed. And the drug dealer, who openly admits to selling marijuana on street corners in the Johannesburg suburb of Brixton, who says he has been detained and tortured repeatedly as an act of retribution.
The torture is not random. Those who are most at risk are young men in townships suspected of breaking the law, regardless of their actual guilt or the seriousness of the charge. Crime so permeates society that in some cities it is rare to meet a South African who has not had a firsthand experience with being robbed. Daily life reflects this constant fear. One can drive through Johannesburg neighborhoods on a sunny afternoon and see no people — just high gates and guard stations. Crime is so common that it is often only considered violent if the victim is injured; robbery at gunpoint is usually deemed petty if the trigger is not pulled.